The mayor of Surrey, British Columbia announced a "significant and substantial" response to gun violence between warring gangs that's playing out at city intersections, including giving federal police access to 24-hour real-time traffic cameras — a tactic that's raising questions from civil liberties monitors.
In light of 32 shootings, eight injuries, and one death since the start of the year in the Vancouver suburb, a "concerned and offended" Mayor Linda Hepner said on Friday she has enlisted more help from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, provincial authorities, and specialized units.
Police believe the rash of violence stems from a struggle for control over the local drug trade between members of dial-a-dope gangs, who police stress are "kids," and not high-level organized criminals.
"What is really disheartening for me is these individuals are smearing our community and our city," said Hepner, accompanied by provincial Public Safety Minister Minister Mike Morris and senior RCMP officers.
She reassured the public that the amount of resources and efforts—including increased air support, canine units, and behaviour analysts—being devoted to the investigations surely means the perpetrators will be caught.
"This isn't just a police problem, this is a community problem," Morris said, strongly urging families of suspected gang members to cooperate with the police. "It's up to the public to provide police with information. Don't stand by if you know there is something going on out there. You have the duty as a citizen to step forward and help the community overcome the problems it's going through right now."
'We're building a new jail in the Okanagan and we're going to have lots of space for you.'
Addressing the gang members directly, Morris said: "We're building a new jail in the Okanagan and we're going to have lots of space for you."
Hepner has given the RCMP 24-hour real-time access at the Surrey detachment to 330 traffic cameras to gather evidence. She has also approved the installation of 75 new cameras around the lower mainland city.
While RCMP Asst. Commissioner Dan Malo wouldn't disclose how many officers were being reallocated to Surrey, he said the number was high, reading out an extensive list of units being brought in to assist.
"If you are involved in the low-level drug lines, you're going to get attention like you never have before," he said to the dealers.
The level of gun violence in Canadian cities pales in comparison to that seen in the United States. Still, shootings are on the rise in some metropolis. Toronto, a city of 2.6-million, has seen a 59 percent spike in the number of shootings this year over last. So far, 114 people have been shot in 94 occurrences this year. Surrey, with a population of about 500,000, has a higher rate.
This week, police in Surrey made five arrests and seized 13 guns linked to the ongoing drug feud. In March, RCMP seized more than $4.5-million in drugs.
British Columbia's privacy commissioner has yet to comment publicly on the announcement about giving cops access to traffic cameras, but civil liberties watchdogs are eager to hear her reaction.
"It's at least gray," Micheal Vonn, of the BC Civil Liberties Association, said about the approach, questioning whether or not the privacy commissioner's input was sought by the city at all.
"It sounds like they're saying they're going to allow the RCMP to sort of sit beside [the cameras] when that seems effective or is something that would contribute to the investigation — essentially allowing the RCMP to see through the eyes of the traffic cameras when they have a specific reason to do that," she said.
Vonn said at a minimum, the RCMP should sign a memorandum of understanding about how the information will be used.
'Municipal traffic offenses are not murder investigations.'
She said one of the privacy principles is you only collect data for what you are collecting data for. "Municipal traffic offenses are not murder investigations," said Vonn.
Surrey RCMP have struggled to curb gun violence, despite a commitment of 100 new officers for the city from the federal government and a funding boost from the province for the Surrey Wraparound Program, which works with at-risk youth.
RCMP statistics from November of 2015 showed a 188-percent increase in attempted murder and a 40-percent rise in violent crime, compared to November of 2015.
What has residents and police especially on edge is the seemingly indiscriminate nature of the shootings, which have taken place near schools and in residential areas.
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk